Jen­nifer Lee searches out star-stud­ded Chi­nese eateries in Aus­tralia, Paris and Lon­don

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

CHI­NESE food is served on all seven con­ti­nents, even Antarc­tica, where Mon­day is usu­ally Chi­nese food night at McMurdo Sta­tion, the main Amer­i­can sci­en­tific out­post on the icy con­ti­nent. It is ar­guably the most per­va­sive cui­sine on the planet and be­yond: NASA of­fers its as­tro­nauts ther­mosta­bilised sweet-and-sour pork and hot-and-sour soup.

Aus­tralia has de­vel­oped a so­phis­ti­cated culi­nary scene and is home to two of the top Chi­nese restau­rants in the world. The first is Syd­ney’s Billy Kwong and it has a rare dis­tinc­tion: it is one of 10 restau­rants around the world that The New York Times gour­mand R.W. Ap­ple con­sid­ered worth get­ting on a plane for. The other is Flower Drum, in Melbourne, which was one of Restau­rant mag­a­zine’s top 50 restau­rants in the world for four years in a row.

Lo­cated in a slightly bo­hemian neigh­bour­hood, Billy Kwong is an es­tab­lish­ment of mod­est size with an out­sized rep­u­ta­tion. Kylie Kwong, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Chi­ne­seAus­tralian, opened the restau­rant in 2000 with busi­ness part­ner Bill Granger (the merger of their names pro­duced Billy Kwong). While the Chi­nese lan­guage was not main­tained through the gen­er­a­tions of Kwong’s Aus­tralian fam­ily, the cui­sine was.

And while the dishes I try are recog­nis­ably Chi­nese food, they have a fresh, in­spir­ing sheen cast over them. The sweet corn soup is made with fresh corn ker­nels in­stead of creamed corn. Her sweet-and-sour sauce uses fresh toma­toes. She prefers the French tech­nique of re­duc­ing to the Chi­nese tech­nique of adding thick­en­ers such as corn starch. Kwong’s mod­ern Chi­nese is not mod­ern in terms of fu­sion. The evo­lu­tion oc­curred not through recipes but through the un­der­ly­ing in­gre­di­ents.

In an era of celebrity chefs and mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar de­sign­ers, Flower Drum has achieved in­ter­na­tional sta­tus with­out the aid of brand names. Its in­te­rior de­sign, while el­e­gant, is not par­tic­u­larly dra­matic. It has never re­lied on an in­no­va­tive gim­mick or a me­dia-savvy spin. What Flower Drum does of­fer is su­perb ser­vice and clas­sic Chi­nese dishes made with high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents. The el­e­gant sim­plic­ity of the dishes lets the lush in­gre­di­ents shine through, like a beau­ti­ful wo­man who knows she looks her best in a white sum­mer dress. Each bite — gi­gan­tic scal­lops, Wagyu beef — is to be savoured.

I ask its founder, Gil­bert Lau, point-blank: Why is Flower Drum fa­mous? It took more than 20 years to build the restau­rant’s rep­u­ta­tion, he ex­plains. Flower Drum opened in 1975. But it wasn’t un­til the mid-1990s that it re­ceived in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion.

Since then it has ap­peared on Restau­rant ’ s list of the world’s top 50 eateries four times. Ul­ti­mately what lifted Flower Drum was the power of word of mouth.

A 2003 travel ar­ti­cle in The New York Times by Ap­ple pro­claimed that Flower Drum might be one of the best Chi­nese restau­rants any­where. Peo­ple like restau­rants they have heard a lot about, Lau says. The harder it is to get in, the more they want to go.

Peo­ple like to talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences: travel, con­certs, books, films. Of those, restau­rants pro­vide some­thing that ev­ery­one can re­late to, that can be en­joyed over and over, and that are rel­a­tively af­ford­able. Restau­rant din­ing is an ephemeral ex­pe­ri­ence. Once you have eaten the meal, it is gone. All you have left is the me­mory.

But mem­o­ries be­come sto­ries, and sto­ries, in turn, de­rive value from be­ing shared. So per­haps what we seek in great restau­rants is not only the im­me­di­ate suc­ces­sion of sen­sa­tions at the din­ner ta­ble but the tale that can be told af­ter­ward.

Mean­while, two of the world’s trendi­est Chi­nese restau­rants are in Paris and Lon­don.

One of the most fash­ion­able places to eat in Paris is on a street around the cor­ner from the Theatre du Palais-Royal. Lim­ou­sines clog the nar­row block, spew­ing out A-list celebri­ties in painfully stylish out­fits. The shaded win­dows and a vel­vet cur­tain give way to the red, chintzy splen­dour of a Chi­nese restau­rant that could be in any Euro­pean coun­try, but is ac­tu­ally like no other in the world.

Dave Che­ung’s epony­mous restau­rant, Dave, at 12 rue Riche­lieu, boasts a clien­tele that would launch the ca­reer of any as­pir­ing pub­li­cist. Leonardo DiCaprio and his buddy Tobey Maguire have been com­ing here for years; so too have the fash­ion es­tab­lish­ment: Kate Moss, Anna Win­tour and Marc Ja­cobs are all reg­u­lars. Where peo­ple sit can take on the por­ten­tous sym­bol­ism of a fash­ion show or a high school cafe­te­ria.

The en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of this mod­est Paris restau­rant over two decades is some­thing of an enigma. Peo­ple cer­tainly don’t come to Dave be­cause of the food, which is pre­dictable at best, or the decor, which is nei­ther taste­ful enough to be classy nor mod­ern enough to be hip.

The nico­tine-yel­lowed Po­laroids on the restau­rant walls prove a com­pelling ar­chive of late 20th-cen­tury celebrity and the power of Dave’s ap­peal. There is Madonna, with bleached hair and heavy black eye­liner, when she went through her mil­i­tary-bustier Vogue phase. There is the cast of Sex and the City. There is Janet Jack­son be­fore the no­to­ri­ous Su­per Bowl wardrobe mal­func­tion. There is John Malkovich be­fore Be­ing John Malkovich. There is John Malkovich af­ter Be­ing John Malkovich.

What all of the pic­tures have in com­mon is the pres­ence of a sin­gle, thick-browed face: the restau­rant owner.

Dave is the kind of restau­rant owner who doesn’t of­fer menus. In­stead, al­ways tak­ing the or­ders him­self, he asks his clients stan­dard ques­tions: How hun­gry are you? Is there any­thing you don’t eat? Then he de­cides what he will serve. The bills, av­er­ag­ing ($65) a per­son, ar­rive taste­fully at the end.

Dave’s fam­ily is orig­i­nally from China’s north­ern port city of Tian­jin, near Bei­jing. They moved to Paris in 1967 be­cause his mother had a friend here.

Dave’s story of suc­cess started at his par­ents’ restau­rant when a Bri­tish Vogue art di­rec­tor, named Bar­ney Wan, brought his col­league Grace Cod­ding­ton, a creative di­rec­tor, to lunch there.

Fast-for­ward to 1982, when Dave opened his own restau­rant only five min­utes from the Jardin des Tui­leries, where Paris Fash­ion Week events were be­ing held. The restau­rant was ap­peal­ing be­cause it was ge­o­graph­i­cally con­ve­nient, be­cause it was ac­ces­si­ble Chi­nese fare, and be­cause Dave spoke English; the Amer­i­can and Bri­tish fash­ion crowd was weary of slog­ging through Parisian French. The Hol­ly­wood set found its way to Dave and the mu­sic in­dus­try in­evitably fol­lowed.

Dave has known many of his cus­tomers for years, be­fore they were bold-faced names. He points to a pic­ture of a very young, very wispy Leonardo DiCaprio at a birth­day party. Sofia Cop­pola has been com­ing here since she was 13 years old. There is also a pic­ture of Kate Moss when she was just start­ing out.

For th­ese cus­tomers, Dave is the same. His food is the same. The cloi­sonne ta­ble lamps, white plates, and sil­ver­ware are the same as when he first opened in 1982. Dave is like the neigh­bour­hood Chi­nese joint you went to when you were a kid. He re­mem­bers you. He knows what you like. He dotes on you. Only his neigh­bour­hood hap­pens to be de­fined as the world of celebrity, with a ge­o­graph­i­cal range that spans the globe.

I hadn’t ex­pected that the top-ranked Chi­nese restau­rant in the world, in­clu­sive of China, would be in Lon­don but that is where Restau­rant puts it: Hakkasan, founded by Alan Yau and Sin­ga­pore chef Tong Chee Hwee, at 8 Han­way Place, Fitzrovia.

Lon­don, with its in­flux of in­ter­na­tional im­mi­grants and in­flu­ences, has be­come home to a num­ber of the world’s most recog­nised restau­rants. Hong Kong-born Yau threw Chi­nese food into the up­scale Lon­don restau­rant mix when he opened Hakkasan in 2001 to fawn­ing re­views and a cov­eted Miche­lin star.

Three years later, Yau fol­lowed up with Yau­atcha, a nou­velle dim sum par­lour. Yau made it pos­si­ble to once again say sexy and Chi­nese restau­rant in the same sen­tence. Once upon a time, Chi­nese food in Eng­land was con­sid­ered ex­otic and chic.

Men im­pressed their dates with their so­phis­ti­ca­tion by tak­ing them to Chi­nese restau­rants. Up­per-class house­wives threw af­ter­noon mahjong par­ties and pored over out­landish recipes call­ing for black sauce made with beans and se­same oil.

But this im­age slowly eroded as Chi­nese restau­rants be­came a vic­tim of their own suc­cess. Im­mi­grants flooded the din­ing scene with ca­sual eateries, sell­ing Bri­tish-Chi­nese dishes such as crispy shred­ded beef (which has a whole lot of crisp, a lot of shred, and not a whole lot of beef). Chi­nese food be­came com­mon­place, chintzy and cheap.

Hakkasan re­jected that. When we visit, its sprawl­ing un­der­ground lair sur­rounds us with sleek­ness and beauty. The restau­rant’s decor is dra­matic. The hostesses are strik­ing. Our waiter, a black man born in Paris, could be a model. In­stead of red lanterns and golden dragons, Hakkasan is packed with Lon­don yup­pies look­ing glam­orous in the dim light­ing. I see few Chi­nese faces. My friend whis­pers, Chi­nese peo­ple wouldn’t pay this much for Chi­nese food. It is true. The Hakkasan and Yau­atcha menus, writ­ten in Chi­nese and English, list clas­sic Chi­nese dishes cast with some sur­pris­ing twists (os­trich dumplings, stir-fried veni­son, Chilean sea bass dumplings, mango spring rolls).

While the food is in­deed im­pec­ca­ble and well ex­e­cuted, what gives Hakkasan its fame is the scene. Any­one could feel hip here, just through os­mo­sis. Even I feel trans­formed. Gen­er­a­tions ago, Chi­nese restau­rants sold so­phis­ti­ca­tion along with their food.

To­day, Hakkasan has rein­vig­o­rated that trans­ac­tion, trad­ing a night of its en­chant­ment for the price of ap­pe­tiser, main course, dessert and drinks. This is an edited ex­tract from TheFor­tune Cook­ieChron­i­cles by Jen­nifer Lee (Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing, $39.99), out in early July. Se­crets of the stove — Page 6

Wok stars: Clock­wise from top, Billy Kwong in Syd­ney; Lon­don’s hip Hakkasan; Flower Drum in Melbourne; Hakkasan

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